RENDEZVOUS WITH OBLIVION: REPORTS FROM A SINKING SOCIETY
By Thomas Frank
I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before how I think Thomas Frank is the best commentator going on American political culture. His book The Wrecking Crew nailed the essential, unifying principles of today’s Republican party, while Listen, Liberal did the same for the Democrats. Rendezvous with Oblivion doesn’t set as high a bar, being a collection of essays he’s written over the course of the last five years without any overarching thesis. There is, however, a lot to take note of as he is still pitching strikes.
There’s one part of the analysis in particular I want to mention. This has to do with the role our supposed guardians have played (and are playing) during a time of extreme economic anxiety brought on by a widening gap between the haves and have-nots. It’s basically the lifeboat scenario: where too many people are struggling to get on the lifeboats while those already on board want to do everything to secure their own position of security and privilege. Frank looks at two places where this scenario has been playing out, both relating to the guardian role I mentioned: academia and the press.
Both universities and newspapers are under a great deal of pressure in the new economy. Tenured faculty are being replaced by contract or sessional workers, while reporters, in the few newspapers that remain, have been reduced to content providers and “minimum-wage flunkies.” It’s a very, very bad time to be a prof or a journalist, and the future looks even worse. There are, however, still a few lifeboats bobbing amid the wreckage. Might the survivors lend a helping hand for their drowning sisters and brothers? Frank has his doubts.
First up are the universities:
What their [the professoriate’s] downfall shows us is just how easily systems of this kind can be made to crumble. There is zero solidarity in a meritocracy, even a fake one, as the writer Sarah Kendzior showed in a series of hard-hitting articles on the adjunct situation. Just about everyone in academia believes that they were the smartest kid in their class, the one with the good grades and the awesome test scores. They believe, by definition, that they are where they are because they deserve it. They’re the best. So tenured faculty find it easy to dismiss the deprofessionalization of their field as the whining of second-raters who can’t make the grade. Too many of the adjuncts themselves, meanwhile, find it difficult to blame the system as they apply fruitlessly for another tenure-track position or race across town to their second or third teaching job: maybe they just don’t have what it takes after all. Then again, they will all be together, assuredly, as they sink finally into the briny deep.
From my own experience talking with faculty this is an accurate take on the situation. Tenured faculty invariably (I know of only one exception) speak of adjuncts or sessionals as “losers.” There is zero solidarity.
Now here’s what’s been happening in the newsroom, from Frank’s essay on the Washington Post’s smearing of Bernie Sanders. The Post is itself a lifeboat, one of only a few newspapers that has positioned itself as a winner in the new media landscape. But, as Frank writes, the “people at the top of the journalism hierarchy don’t really identify with their plummeting peers.” They are the insiders, the Beltway punditocracy, and “it is increasingly obvious that becoming an insider is the only way to hoist yourself above the deluge.” Above the deluge and in the lifeboat. As for those left behind, they are, just like the university adjuncts, a bunch of losers. Furthermore, and this is the important point Frank is making, “between journalism’s insiders and its outsiders – between the ones who are rising and the ones who are sinking – there is no solidarity at all.”
Until the day, that is, when you wake up and learn that the tycoon behind your media concern has changed his mind and everyone is laid off and that it was never really about you in the first place. Gone the private office or award-winning column or cable news show. The checks start bouncing. The booker at MSNBC stops calling. And suddenly you find that you are a middle-aged maker of paragraphs – of useless things – dumped out into a billionaire’s world that has no need for you and doesn’t really give a damn about your degree in comparative literature from Brown. You start to think a little differently about universal health care and tuition-free college and Wall Street bailouts. But of course it is too late by then. Too late for all of us.
This lack of solidarity is the key, and it’s something I first noticed, and was horribly depressed by, some twenty years ago when I worked in a large industrial union shop. It was staggering to me that the only thing any of the union members saw the union as being good for was what it could do for their own personal benefit. In pursuit of such selfish ends they were more than willing to kneecap their brothers and sisters, and indeed the union itself. As a result, whenever a union steward would mention the word “solidarity,” even in passing, my mouth would fall open. Nobody who worked there showed any indication of caring a bit about that.
My takeaway from the experience wasn’t just that unionism was dead, but that it was dead from the roots up. For it to come back something essential to our whole way of understanding how such social organizations work would have to change. Meanwhile, the good ship of society is on its way down – an image invoked by Frank’s subtitle. Unions, those that survive, do provide lifeboats, but there aren’t enough of those even for just their dues-paying members to each have a place. In the zero-sum competition to be an insider or outsider, winner or loser, solidarity has no place.
This is, of course, the language of Trump, whose favourite pejorative is that of “loser.” Frank ends the book on a dismal note, explaining how Trump will win re-election: easily if the economy stays strong, and if things tank then with the assistance of the snooty Democrats. The problem with the Democrats being that they too are only interested in who comes out on top. They’ve bought into the war-of-all-against-all world view completely, but just have slightly different criteria for selecting the winners. Best advice is to get a lifeboat and a paddle. Not to row with, but to hit anyone on the head who tries to clamber on board.
Review first published online August 6, 2018.